Syphilis in College

Ariane Jensen

Syphilis is an easy-to-spread sexually transmitted disease (STD) that is slowly picking up its pace infecting people all over the United States of America. Syphilis is a complex disease that can be transmitted vaginally, anally and orally. It’s one of the most common STDs out there infecting 7.5 out of every 100,000 people. Dr. Alex de Voux, an expert in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) Division of STD Prevention, brings some insight to the topic, explaining symptoms, treatment and the stages of the infection.


There are four different stages, including but not limited to primary, secondary, latent and late stage syphilis. Each stage is important to know about and with each stage, the symptoms become more severe. Each stage lasts for a different amount of time. Primary syphilis can last from three to six weeks, secondary syphilis will last about the same, or less. However when you enter the latent stage (or the stage that you don’t notice) it can last from ten to thirty years if left untreated. According to the CDC website late stage syphilis is the stage most fear – the one people have heard the horror stories about, where the person with the disease goes insane. De Voux says:

“There are complications that can occur at any stage of the infection. This could be neurological symptoms and ocular symptoms and they can actually manifest at any stages… we’ve had descriptions of individuals describing blurry vision or sort of seeing floaters in their eyes, and recent cases it’s actually been associated with impaired vision and vision loss.”

So be aware of syphilis in general, and if you notice any of the following symptoms, it’s time to see your healthcare provider.  


In the primary stage of syphilis the symptoms to look for are going to be genital sores, formally known as chancre sores. They will be somewhat firm, round, and painless. This can be hard to notice in women, but it is easy to spot in men. You can also contract oral sores. This stage, because of the open wounds, is the most infectious stage along with the secondary stage. In the secondary stage the symptoms are a rash on the palms of your hands and on the soles of your feet. De Voux describes it as,“a very characteristic rash with red spots.” Some other symptoms of secondary syphilis are muscle aches and hair loss. The latent stage has no symptoms, and it is defined by the fact that all previous symptoms have gone away. The infection will then stay dormant until it comes back full force in late stage syphilis. Symptoms include paralysis, numbness, dementia (the neurological symptoms that people have heard about) as well as the ocular symptoms listed above.

Treponema pallidum spirochetes as seen via dark field microscopy


De Voux explains: “The treponema pallidum has a pretty characteristic spiral shape. One of the ways they actually diagnose syphilis is called dark field microscopy, so what they look for under the microscope is the shape of the actual bacteria which is the spiral. That’s not done very often, very few people are trained in dark field microscopy, but it is one of the ways they would diagnose it.” Another way of diagnosing syphilis is through getting a blood test through any health care provider including Georgia Southern Health Services where you can have STD screening tests performed.


Syphilis is curable, and it has been curable for several decades. The most effective way of treating the infection is a shot of penicillin. One shot of penicillin will do to treat the primary and secondary stages, but the latent stage and the late stage will need a shot administered once a week for three weeks. The downside is as de Voux explains, “even once you are treated, you will always have antibodies to syphilis, so you may always come up with a positive test, but it’s really dependent on what your titer is.” (Titer is how many times you dilute blood before you stop detecting it.)

Ways to avoid getting syphilis:

There are certain behaviors that people have that make it more likely that they will contract syphilis so in order to protect yourself, do these things: “Use a condom, have protected sex, if you are worried about being infected with syphilis, go and get STD tested. Have a  conversation with your sexual partner about STD and the likelihood of transmission,” de Voux suggests.

In synopsis de Voux summarizes: “we are seeing a resurgence in syphilis, I think a lot of people think that it’s in the past, and that it’s not relevant anymore, and we are definitely seeing an increase in the rates of syphilis in the United States. So keep that on your radar when you’re thinking about sexual health and your sexual partners as well.” Be careful what you’re doing, and make sure you’re checking out your body and being aware what is happening to it. Stay safe, stay sane, and stay clean – good luck, and get tested.

Feature image courtesy of Net Health Book.